Nintendo’s ‘apology’ for not including same-sex relationships in Tomodachi Life is both unsettling and disappointing to me.
For those who aren’t aware: Tomodachi Life is a social game for 3DS which involves Nintendo’s Mii avatars. It was announced relatively recently, but my understanding is that the game’s already seen release in Japan and will be coming to North America and Europe soon. Its brilliantly bizarre trailer paints a picture of personalisation, pets, concerts and other fun activities, with the Miis developing relationships with one another. However, those relationships are glaringly heteronormative, and when challenged on the point, Nintendo stated that same-sex relationships weren’t allowed.
I refuse to call this an oversight, or suggest that anything is lacking because there has clearly been a mechanical decision made somewhere to exclude same-sex relationships in the game. Since the trailer was announced and then challenged on these grounds, the dialogue between players and developers seems to have gone:
“Fun for everyone!”
“Yeah, but.. can the Miis have same-sex marriages?”
“.. why not? Can you patch it in?”
After which followed a bit of mumbling and hand-wringing until Nintendo finally put out a statement, basically claiming that it’s too late to do anything about the problem.
Their apology seems ignorant of the fact that somewhere along the line, someone either built a system in which all Miis could have relationships with each other regardless of gender marker attributes and then added that constraint, or at the very least raised the question in a design meeting, but had the proposal refused.
Basically, I find it very hard to see how Tomodachi Life could have been designed any other way than with an intentional heterosexual bias. That is, unless Nintendo are admitting to employing some very narrow-minded and therefore incapable designers, not one of whom ever thought to raise the point about homosexual relationships either at either the mechanical design stage, or in terms of how the game would be received by its players. This, of course, sits counter to Nintendo’s ethos of ‘games for all’.
I’m being a tad blunt here, but what I do know is that my perception of Nintendo has been shaken. When I try to imagine the thought processes which went into making Tomodachi Life into a heteronormative game, I can’t help but wonder if the company is inherently dismissive of same-sex relationships. Perhaps no-one on the design team dared speak up about such a feature for fear of dismissal. Perhaps it’s the realisation of one of our greatest concerns about games development today: that all involved were simply of the same mindset, and so it never occurred to them to be inclusive towards this branch of their diverse audience. Worse: perhaps they’re of one mind when it comes to being exclusive of homosexual Mii players.
All pretty scary ideas, but sadly this is where I feel I’ve been left standing. Somewhere along the line, Nintendo decided not to feature same-sex marriages and while they could well have built this system with such complexity that it cannot now be patched, their reliance upon there being a fix in Tomodachi Life 2 comes across as a weak – and perhaps naive – apology, especially since they’re pitching inter-Mii relationships as being one of the most enjoyable game features. It’s also insulting to contemplate a system which is built so heavily around perceived gender norms that it cannot now be changed. Is it the case that all female Miis act a certain way to male Miis’ inputs, as per the Samus scenario in the trailer? Is that why Nintendo can’t fix the game by simply removing an ‘IF’ statement here and there?
All of this is a shame, because I really like the look of the game – but not the fact its designers took the decision to declare that the avatars of some of my close friends could never show romantic affection for one another. EA/Bioware encountered this with their Star Wars games, and a forum thread famously closing with the line, “there are no gay people in Star Wars“. Games set in the Old Republic, do not, however, rely upon the avatars we make of our friends and family on the pretext of reflecting ourselves in the game world. However much Nintendo might want to distance Tomodachi Life from reality, I don’t feel they can ask us to make Miis of our friends and then strip away the relationships we feel they ought to have. That’s Nintendo taking the lives of its customers and fans, and reflecting them back at us through a heteronormative filter.